Calls Mount for Ethics Reform in Congress the New World on Capitol Hill Demands Greater Obedience to an Expanding Code of Ethics for the Activities of Congressional Members. but the Public Calls for Even Stricter Guidelines and Enforcement
John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
DANIEL WEBSTER, perhaps the greatest orator ever in the United States Senate, is hailed far and wide by historians. Throughout the 19th century, he was so respected by educators that American schoolchildren were required to memorize his speeches.
Yet if Senator Webster were suddenly transported to 1993, he might be quickly hauled before the Senate Ethics Committee. Historian Merrill Peterson observes that Webster had close financial ties to big corporate interests in New England even as he championed their causes on the Senate floor.
In 20th-century terms, it was a clear conflict of interest. Nor was that all. Webster, a poor manager of money, was frequently bailed out by wealthy backers. When he returned to the Senate, after a stint as secretary of state, rich patrons collected a large purse for Webster's private use, notes Dr. Peterson, a retired history professor at the University of Virginia.
Today, such financial hanky-panky would not only violate the rules of Congress, it would make Webster the target of every muckraking journalist and television newscaster in Washington. He might be forced to resign under a storm of headlines.
It's a new world on Capitol Hill - one that demands greater obedience to the rules. Yet even as congressmen toe the ethical line, criticism of Congress increases. Thousands of irate citizens join groups like THRO Inc. (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out!). Movements to limit the terms of congressmen draw growing support from California to Florida.
Congressmen are perplexed and frustrated. Sen. Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama, who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee for 13 years, says proudly: "We are probably today the most ethical Congress ... that has ever existed." Then he adds sadly: "You can't convince the media of that."
Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says ethics is often in the eye of the beholder. Even as Congress improves, the media and public are so critical of politicians, he says, that "we've made criminals of all of us."
Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, a 12-year veteran of the House ethics committee, says "there's nothing more painful" than ethics investigations of a fellow member. The accused person's reputation, sometimes his life's work, is at stake, he says.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico says ethics probes put a tremendous strain on the accused, especially those who are wrongly charged. Defending oneself against accusations, which are sometimes politically inspired, can run up legal bills of $300,000 to $500,000. A simplified system
Senator Domenici says he hopes Congress will come up with a simplified process for clearing innocent members of false ethics charges. The aim of ethics reform should not be simply to kick out guilty congressmen, but to improve justice for everyone involved, he emphasizes.
While some critics focus on personal lapses by congressmen, others say the root of the problem on Capitol Hill is money. Until Congress takes the monied interests out of politics through sweeping campaign reform, they say, public doubts will persist.
Voter attitudes toward Washington first began to slide downhill after the Watergate break-in in the early 1970s. In those days, most public anger was aimed at the Nixon White House.
More recently, attention has turned to Capitol Hill. The public storm over congressional ethics has grown steadily stronger in the past few years. It was fueled by the check-kiting scandal, the savings-and-loan crisis, the forced resignation of former House Speaker Jim Wright, and the midnight pay raise.
The responsibility for cleaning things up rests squarely with Congress. The Constitution says only the House and Senate can punish or expel miscreant members. Enforcement changes
Until the 1960s, both houses used ad hoc or select committees to deal with ethical offenses. But in 1964, the Senate appointed a full-time ethics panel. …